Causes of Decline of Buddhism in India

Decline of Buddhism in India

India is the birthplace of Buddhism. Though Buddhism is still surviving today in many countries of the world, yet it has declined in its land of birth. The causes for the decline or downfall of Buddhism in India have been discussed in this article.

1. Decline of royal patronage

The royal patronage of power kings contributed towards the growth of Buddhism in India. It had to fight hard with Brahmanical religion. Royal patronage like that offered by the Maurya Emperor Ashoka and Kushana Emperor Kaniska could only contribute to its ascendancy and progress. Kanishka is credited for the massive propagation of Buddhism across various regions, including the Central Asia.

The Brahmanical revival under the Guptas perhaps led to the downfall of Buddhism in India. Though Harsha was a patron of Buddhism, no sustained support was available for Buddhism after his death. In the absence of state patronage the Buddhist church began to decline. Brahmanical religion which always remained a powerful force overshadowed Buddhism.

Criticism of the royal patronage theory

The above explanation about the decline of Buddhism may be a contributory factor, but it is not free from a number of defects.

1. The Hindu rulers were tolerant to different creeds and religions. Though Sasanka is accused of intolerance to Buddhism, many scholars have rejected the view. Even if, we accept the anti-Buddhist legend about Sasanka, it is reasonable to believe that he was motivated by political reasons rather than by religious fanaticism.

2. Chinese traveler like Fa-Hien, testify the progress of Buddhism in Madhya Desa during the Guptas, though the latter did not zealously patronize Buddhism. Hiuen Tsang saw many Buddhist Stupas in India in the 7th century AD.

3. In the 10th century large monasteries like that of Vikramasila were established in Modern India. In the Pala period many Buddhist teachers went to Tibet for preaching Buddhism. However, many scholars believe that Buddhism flourished by reposing on the wings of the power of large states whose rulers advocated Buddhism. Such a patronage waned after Harsha.

Fa-Hien noticed the peak period of expansion of Buddhism in India. However, when Hiuen Tsang visited India during the rule of Harsha, Buddhism lost its ascendency. After Harsha, it rapidly declined inspite of the patronage extended by the Palas.

2. Impact of Sankaracharya’s Preaching’s

Sankaracharya (also Adi Sankaracharya, Adi Sankara) was the great Hindu saint who reinforced the principles of ancient Hindu religion. Many scholars believe that the Brahmanical revival under Sankaracharya led to decline of Buddhism in India.

Sankara was born in Kerala. Legend ascribes him many faculties. He preached the cult of Advaita Vedanta or monism. Sankara possessed an extra-ordinary debating skill. He is said to have challenged all renouned Buddhist scholars in debate on conditions that, if they were defeated, they will have to renounce Buddhism and embrace Brahmanism. He defeated all of them.

The victorious march of Sankara from the South to the North and the mass conversion of the Buddhists was a death-blow to the survival of Buddhism in India. The followers of Sankara were great zealots who used force against the non-violent Buddhists in order to reconvert them to Brahmanism.

Criticism of the Sankaraacharya’s Theory

The Sankara theory is not also free from a number of defects.

1. There is no archaeological and literary record to support the theory of Sankara’s crusade against Buddhism. We have to depend upon legends, which may be historically untrue.

2. Sankara flourished in the 8th century A.D. One of his famous contemporary philosophers was Santa Rakshita. In his book ‘Tattva Samgraha’, he criticized all prevailing philosophical theories. But Sankara remains unmentioned by him. This may be due to the fact that Sankara was relatively unknown in his time. It was probably after Sankara’s death that Vachaspati Mishra popularized Sankara’s theory. Even then Vachaspati has said nothing against the Buddhists.

3. Scholars like Anandagiri and Madhvacharya have narrated the story of Sankara’s crusade against Buddhism. But it is not supported by any other texts like the Ceylonese chronicles or Tibetan chronicles, or by any other work. If Sankara was successful in his crusade against Buddhism how could Buddhism flourish in India in the 10th century?

In the absence of corroborative evidences, it is difficult to accept the theory of Sankara’s anti-Buddhist crusade leading to the decline of Buddhism in India.

3. Internal weaknesses of Buddhism

It is reasonable to suggest that Buddhism declined more for its own failures than for any external causes.

1. Hinayana or Theravadins advocated a dry, rational, monkish creed which gradually lost its appeal to the people in general. The common men failed to comprehend the philosophical aspects of Buddha’s teachings.

2. After the death of Buddha, various sects arose in the Buddhist church. They were opposed to each other and each of them claimed to be true followers of Buddha’s doctrines. In the time of Asoka, the Third Buddhist General Council was summoned at Pataliputra to resolve the disputes of doctrine and schism. But it failed to make much headway. The Theravadins swayed the Third General Council and the non-Theravadins failed to make much impact.

4. Assimilation with Hinduism

In later periods, it was preached that worship of Buddha will bring salvation rather than the practice of the ethical doctrines the eight-fold Paths. Such a great departure from original Buddhism caused a great blow to the survival of the creed.

Monasteries and Stupas bearing image of Buddha and Bodhisattva were built. Offerings in gold, silver and jewels enhanced the wealth of the Stupas and temples.

Common people found no difference between a Hindu temple and a Buddhist Stupa. Moreover the Mahayanists used Sanskrit as their vehicle of expression.

In the Gupta period, Buddhists joined the religious processions of the Hindus. Poet Jaya-Deva who belonged to the period of Sena Dynasty in his `Dasavatara Stotra’ (Hymn for Ten Avataras) identified Buddha with the Tenth Avatara or incarnation of Lord Krishna.

5. Foreign invasions and attack by hostile forces

When Buddhism was in such a state of degeneration repeated attacks by hostile force and foreign invaders totally uprooted the creed from India. The fact of Sasanka’s hostility against Buddhism even for political reasons did a great damage to this creed.

Even.after the Pala period Buddhism shined in a declining glory.

6. Socio-economic cause

D.D. Kosambi has given a socio-economic explanation for the decline of Buddhism in India. The land system and the structure of land holding in India underwent a transformation. In place of the state above and the peasants below, there grew a large number of intermediaries over the land.

The Buddhist religion preaching equality of man and castelessness did not suit the interests of this new intermediary class. Brahmanical religion preaching caste distinctions and converting tribals into lower caste Sudras served the interests of this intermediary class. They could till the land with them and cut the jungle for new land with their labour. Thus, the intermediary class discarded Buddhism and patronized Brahmanical religion and its propagation among the tribal’s and Sudras.